By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
By 8 a.m., Bruce and Rick Rutsky are at their table in Rose's section at the Denny's on U.S. 441 just south of Hollywood Boulevard, clamoring for their bowls of oatmeal and bananas. The two huge, grizzled, and grimy men look like tractor-trailer drivers who just rolled off the turnpike, briefly injecting color into the usual bland crowd. But the Rutskys are regulars. Every day, for years, they've shown up and tucked into their gruel with meaty paws, trading barbs, offering bits from their lives to whoever flops down at the next table.
"I plan to take over the piano business in South Florida," Bruce declares to a nearby group of Denny's stalwarts. "That'll be the Piano King over there," he adds in his heavy New Jersey accent, pointing a fleshy hand at his brother. A glance at the two men is blinding. The amount of gold draped around their necks and wrists would shame Mr. T or Penthouse mag's Bob Guccione. Bruce is wearing two pinkie rings, forced onto scarred and dirt-creased fingers. Is this the South Florida version of The Sopranos? Who knew the world of pianos was so dicey?
"Oh no," the Rutskys holler in tandem. "It ain't like that." This is a story about two brothers who moved from Saddle Brook, New Jersey, to North Miami as teenagers some 30 years ago. They grew up there and on Miami Beach, fixed motorcycles, chased girls, got married to a couple of shrews, started a business together.... Now the two fix and sell pianos and refinish furniture, calling themselves the Pianos.
"Everywhere we go, people ask us if we're twins," Bruce confides. "I say, 'No, that's my sister!'" People can be forgiven for asking. On any given day, the pair can be found wearing nearly identical uniforms of baggy T-shirts, loose gym shorts, and sneakers with old white socks. They wear their ball caps backward to hide the identical half-moons of baldness that contrast with the unruly collar-brushing lengths at the backs of their necks. Besides a similar girth and heft to their bodies, both have thick salt-and-pepper beards. Each is missing a tooth from the front of his mouth -- Bruce from biting down too hard on an ice cube, Rick from a rock-hard popcorn kernel. A diamond stud winks from Rick's ear, whereas Bruce favors a small gold hoop. You get the feeling they picked them out together, though.
Blue-eyed Bruce, age 49, is the elder and taller brother by several inches. At 296 pounds (the oatmeal diet recently helped him drop 40), he also outweighs Rick by 3 or 4 pounds. "He says I look like Danny DeVito," complains the five-foot-six, 45-year-old Rick, brown eyes unblinking behind glasses with faux-tortoise frames. "But he's no Schwarzenegger." Rick is the talker, the wheeler-dealer. Bruce is the man with the piano-fixin' hands. The thing that really makes the Rutskys seem like twins, though, is their unselfconscious habit of finishing each other's thoughts. Rick starts the story of how a post-high school Bruce went into the Navy, got through basic training, and was saved at the last minute from being sent to Vietnam when doctors discovered he'd had a heart murmur as a child. "You were a young man then," Rick reminds his brother. "I was nineteen," Bruce rejoins. Then, in unison, the brothers lift their caps and bow their heads. "We had hair then!" they crow.
The life of the Pianos has been a life of good times (Marvin Gaye's piano, Versace's mansion, Billy the Kid's ghost, to name just a couple of high points). Also troubles (the crazy wife, the exploding fish tank, the cow in the backyard). "We've been through fire; we've been through storms," Bruce says. Rick adds, shrugging nonchalantly, "Yeah, you know, the usual stuff -- deaths, marriages, heart attacks, no money, and lotsa money."
So what's with all the precious metal? "We like gold because in hard times, if they come, you can always sell it," Rick figures.
B & R Refinishing and Piano Co., headquarters of the Rutsky piano empire, is located in a warehouse strip just north of the Miami-Dade/Broward County line on SW 60th Terrace in Miramar. Inside, the business looks about like they do: pleasantly disheveled and full of memories. Rick leads the way into the cramped office. Outdated manifests and many holidays' worth of photos are plastered to the walls. The plastic eyes and tail of a black-cat clock tick rhythmically next to last year's calendar. A stained old roll-top desk is stuffed with paperwork Rick hasn't bothered to file. He settles back mournfully, arms folded like old friends over his belly. "One of these days, I gotta do all the bookkeeping," he grieves. Before she died three years ago, their mother used to take care of it.
The boys are more concerned with growing the business. They want to move to a place where they can have a showroom of finished pianos to entice new customers, although they say a lot of them kind of like poking around the dusty workshop crammed with recuperating keyboards. "We aren't one of these big companies that just sell pianos," Bruce intones. "We care about every piano and the customer." Rick and his son do the stripping, sanding, and gluing. Bruce does the finish work, mixing the colors and applying the lacquer.